An edited version of this piece appeared in The Age
Walking home late last night, the park’s canopy broke and the city came into relief: dark giants wearing neon headbands. My God, it was beautiful. An unabashed declaration of civilisation, not at war with the stars, but in a defiantly awkward choir with them.
Melbourne’s CBD was a messy class-photo of love and squalor; of architecture and short-cuts to architecture; of prosperity and design and commerce. A bold concentration of our triumphs and our failures, as cities are.
If you’re Occupying Melbourne at the moment, rather than just living in it, you might see it differently. As some vulgar and stupefying thing, perhaps. A citadel of capitalism, a triumph of cupidity, a cardboard edifice buckling under the collective breath of The People.
“Opening a dialogue in our public spaces for Real Democracy. It’s time Australians reclaimed our collective voice!” So says the Occupy Melbourne website, but it’s unclear from what or whom the public space is being reclaimed, and judging by the protestors’ dreams of revolution, it seems that democracy is no more of a concern than reality is.
For so many of Melbourne’s protestors, dread capitalism had become spectral and monolithic, but there is no consistently “capitalist” experience. Capitalism is, by its very nature, dynamic. Sometimes destructively. But Occupy Melbourne has done nothing to distinguish the Australian experience from the United States’, instead making a baneful conflation based upon myth and simplicity. It’s an ignorant and offensive comparison, dismissing our strong institutions, 5.1% unemployment rate, steady growth, low GDP/debt ratio, a culture far more egalitarian than our American brothers, a political response to the GFC which was applauded by the IMF, if not the voters and, importantly, our lauded financial regulation.
Here in Australia we had far less of Alan Greenspan’s almost religious optimism in the rationality of the banking sector, and much more of Adam Smith’s suspicion of its ruinous volatility. We’d do well to note this and, wary of growing prideful and complacent, give thanks to a system reasonably untouched by the darker practices of American capitalism.
Domestically, Occupy Melbourne has been a hilarious communications disaster. For something which had sprung powerfully from Wall Street, interest groups here have attached themselves parasitically to the body. At Occupy Fridays held in City Square, you can watch seminars on feminism, Palestine, Latin American politics, cyber security, and “critical theory”. It’s a preposterous, self-important mess which has diluted—if not destroyed—the message completely. A friend of mine went further, denying there ever was a message: “This is just the parasites. There is no host.”
Amongst claims of “real democracy” and fostering a “collective voice,” there appears to be scant interest about the country in which they protest. When discussions of Chavez’s Venezuelan utopia gets higher billing than Australian economics, you realise that you’re through the looking glass. And if you think the best and most inclusive way of winning over regular folks is lecturing them with the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, then there’s a good chance syphilis has destroyed your frontal lobe and I would quit practicing free love immediately. If you don’t know what the Frankfurt School of Theory is, then all the better for you, but it’s no surprise that our zealous would-be revolutionaries are in its thrall.
In fact, your participation in Occupy Melbourne may well rest on how diligently you studied Marcuse or Deleuze or any of the other “critical theorists” and “deconstructionists” in university, who do such a good job of transforming their readers into smug little vandals for whom critical thinking means an untiring suspicion of everything. That which is consistent is to be abhorred. To know culture is to loathe it. This reflexive pessimism must be exhausting, and means the Christmas presents are forever zealously dismantled and left broken on the floor, dismissed as artefacts of Empire.
The truth is, capitalism has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty. As the New Yorker’s John Cassidy has written: “In China between 1981 and 2005, according to a study by researchers at the World Bank, the poverty rate fell from 84 percent to 16. By the end of the period, more than 600 million Chinese had been lifted out of poverty,” a result of China opening up its markets.
As Cassidy notes, with the development of the Chinese economy—as with the industrialisation of Britain’s and the United States’ beforehand—inequality and environmental degradation has increased. It’s a powerful point to be made by protestors, but it’s inexcusable to excise the figures on poverty and standards of living while making it.
Given the world’s awesome economic interdependence, Australian protestors are also right to take note of international trends—economic shocks are felt the world ‘round. As China emerges as a great rival power to the US, and is close to becoming the largest economy in the world—the first time a non-democratic country has held this position in two centuries—hard discussions about global values must be had, but we can do without the misguided moral sanctimony of Occupy Melbourne.
But, please: don’t get me wrong. I’m not calling for the eviction of the Occupy Friday’ers. Just someone hand them some history and economics textbooks, please.